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This book follows Zephyr, a war strategist. She’s spent her whole life studying philosophy and other things related to strategy, and now she’s on the run with the people she works for, because they’re losing. The woman Zephyr serves, Xin Ren, is trying to protect the Empress, while this other lady, Miasma, is trying to take over the throne.

Unfortunately, no one recognizes what Xin Ren is doing as good, because Miasma has managed to fool the Empress that she’s actually helping her. So in order to take down Miasma, Zephyr pretends to betray Xin Ren and join Miasma. Things get complicated from here politically, as Zephyr has to convince Miasma she’s on her side, while still helping Xin Ren.

And then just when you start to feel like things are going along nice and smoothly, the author takes us completely for a loop. This was the strangest plot twist I’ve ever seen, but somehow it fit with the story. There was just enough foreshadowing that I didn’t feel like it was unbelievable, but not nearly enough to have predicted it in the slightest. If you’re looking for a book with a wacky plot twist you’ll never see coming, no matter how good you are at predicting twists, this is the book for you.

This is a loose retelling of an old Chinese story, the Three Kingdoms, which I’m not familiar with. I’m not sure if looking up the story would spoil anything, so I’m going to wait to read about the original until the second book is out. The author said she plans for this to be a duology, which hopefully means we won’t have to wait long for the conclusion.

I got through this pretty quickly, because it’s a relatively short book and the pace moves along quickly. But I never really felt hooked, which was strange, because usually books like this hook me from the first page. I was just starting to understand the world and characters when the plot twist happened, which meant I had to reevaluate everything I just read. Somehow, that made me lose whatever momentum I had going that might have led to this being a new favorite of mine.

From what I’ve seen of other reviews, most people loved the big twist, and felt like it worked well. I’m not sure how I feel about it. For the first half of the book, there aren’t really any fantasy elements like magic or weird creatures. Once the big twist happened, that completely changed, but not in the way I expected it to. It’s not that I didn’t like the twist, I just sort of felt like the book was going along fine and then everything changed on me unexpectedly. It’s a weird feeling that I don’t quite know how to describe, which is why I can’t say that I disliked or liked the twist.

As for the characters, this was really where Joan He’s writing shined. Most of the main characters are strong women, though they’re strong in different ways. Xin Ren has two swornsisters that protect and serve her, both of which I found to be fascinating characters.

Lotus is a warrior through and through. She’ll fight anyone for any reason, and refers to herself in third person for some reason. Cloud is trying to hold everything together, all while hiding how much of a sad lesbian she is. I swear every single time Tourmaline walks into the room her brain goes error 404, gay panic.

There’s also this other strategist who works for Miasma, Crow, who is pretty interesting. He gets along well with Zephyr, despite not completely trusting her yet. The author tried to add in some romantic tension here, which I felt like needed a bit more time to really develop. But I guess that’s what the sequel is for.

Both Zephyr and Crow (and most strategists in this world it seems) play the zither, and have a way of communicating their emotions through it. Depending on which song is chosen and how it’s played, you can determine a lot about a character. I don’t know how much the characters really understand about each other when they play, but Zephyr is always worried about revealing something in her playing.

I know some musicians are quite picky about how music is portrayed in books, because it may not line up with how they internalize music. I’ve never had an issue with music in books, unless the author writes in something that wouldn’t be accurate to the instrument or style. I went and looked up the zither’s history specifically in China, and I can definitely say Joan He did some good research. And that was just from reading some basic info.

Overall, it was a good book, and I’m excited for the sequel, but I wouldn’t say this is a new favorite. If you like retellings or are looking for a good YA fantasy with a variety of strong women this is definitely the book for you.